The well-attended meeting was first addressed by the Chairman of the Bar, Nicholas Lavender QC, who said that it was a demonstration that the whole Bar is concerned “about the changes to Legal Aid” and “its effect on the quality of justice”.

He made four points: our criminal justice system depends on the advocates; it is not “an expensive” system; the amount of criminal legal aid “has been falling” by large amounts in recent years; and fees for advocacy in the Crown court have been “savagely cut” in recent years. They were already 21% less than they were in 2007, or 37% having regard to inflation. A later speaker put the figure at 41%.

It was the Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, Nigel Lithman QC, who first raised the possibilities of the strike and the boycott. He had been invited to an event in preparation for the Global Law Summit next year to celebrate in part “our unrivalled heritage of freedom and justice”. “I could not bring myself to attend” due to the “rank hypocrisy” of the Government in staging such an event in 2015, “having destroyed the criminal Bar in 2014”. He was not in a position to announce at the meeting what the next steps would be (see box, left) but he urged the Bar to be “prepared to take selfless steps”. The prospect of industrial action was raised by his declaration: “We will not work at the new rates.”

Support for the criminal Bar’s position came from Paul Harris, former President of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, who said “we must stand together”; from Martin Westgate QC of the Constitutional and Administrative Law Bar Association, who pointed out the effect of removal of legal aid from aspects of judicial review; and from the Family Law Bar Association (Susan Jacklin QC, Chair, and two questioners from the floor) who cited examples of where the lack of legal aid for a parent in a private children’s case had in fact cost the State far more than it “saved” by denying the litigant legal aid. 

Tim Fancourt QC, Chair of the Chancery Bar Association, foresaw “harm to the reputation of the English justice system” and a “substantial risk that corners will be cut”.

The plight of those who are still seeking a permanent place at the Bar was described
by Hannah Evans, a third six month pupil. She described her own background – a comprehensive school, Oxford, and the BPTC – assisted in part by scholarships – and pupillage in a chambers which paid her more than the minimum stipend. But the low payment for cases (£80 for a trial in the magistrates’ court including work ancillary to it) meant that she can barely survive.

Others find that their outgoings exceed their income. She reiterated that she “did not enter to make money” but “I love the job”. The present situation was “perverse”; barristers “deserve adequate recompense”. Ian West related a comparable scenario: he is 56, he has young children, in the last two years he has accumulated an overdraft of £80,000, “my back is to the wall”. “I can’t afford to go on strike but I cannot afford not to.”

Sarah Forshaw QC, Leader of the South Eastern Circuit, wound up, and explained the reason for a boycott of the celebration of Magna Carta: it is being timed for February, which is before the next General Election but four months before the actual anniversary. That smacks of political motivation.